A year ago, Nintendo released their first HD console, the Wii U. While it had a moderate amount of success during the launch months, in the past twelve months its had its fair share of criticism and skepticism from the press and consumers. Let’s take a quick look at the Wii U’s first year and see how they did in the Wii U Year One Wrap-up.
It’s fair to say that the Wii U had a rather rocky start in 2013 after a fairly impressive debut in the holiday months of 2012. Many early adopters, including myself, felt a bit burned about how things were panning out for first high-definition Nintendo system. Poor sales were the first indicator, with January numbers plummeting to a near-rock bottom value around 57,000 units. For a new console that is alarming. Next came the game delays. Titles that were touted as “launch window” games such as Pikmin 3, Wonderful 101 and Rayman Legends were pushed back for more than half a year, severely impacting the incentive to buy the system or even keep it around.
At launch I think Nintendo gave us some solid games. New Super Mario Bros. U was a great improvement on the NSMB formula but perhaps it was too much redundancy coming just a few months after New Super Mario Bros. 2 on the Nintendo 3DS, giving it a less special feeling for the release. Nintendoland is actually pretty fun though the problem with it lies in the fact that to understand it (and the entire concept of the Wii U) you need to play it. With Wii Sports it was such a brilliantly simple concept that could be understood just by watching someone else play it. Third parties showed up with the newest version of their games as well, including Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed III, Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Sega with Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, and Namco’s Tekken Tag Tournament 2. Combined with my favorite survival horror game in years, the original and exclusive Zombi U, I didn’t have too many complaints. Compared to the launch of the Wii, it was definitely a more core-oriented lineup.
However after the first two holiday months, problems with the system became apparent. Wave two games of Nintendo’s own internal software like Pikmin 3 and Wonderful 101 that were “launch window” games were now pushed back to unspecified dates in the future. A software drought was sucking up any excitement over the new system and along with that sales, something that was not at all helped by the way Nintendo marketed the system and caused confusion at the retail level with people thinking it was just an add-on to the original Wii system. Sales suffered and stemming from that, third parties who were on board began to jump ship. Ubisoft’s Wii U exclusive title, Rayman Legends was delayed from its February launch window until September later in the year. As if this wasn’t a big enough blow, executives flat out said that it was because the Wii U userbase wasn’t where it needed to be to make the game a success and that the game was going to be ported to Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 as well.
February saw zero retail releases for the Wii U. No explanation is needed here for how awful of a number that is in this regard. March came around and at least owners had the chance to buy Lego City Undercover and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, both excellent titles but hardly system-sellers. But at least it was something, even if it wasn’t what the system needed at the time. What’s worse is that the rest of the year was written off until August when we finally got Pikmin 3, which was first a launch title, then a launch window game, nearly 8 months after the system first hit shelves. Perhaps this game more than any other exemplifies how Nintendo dropped the ball on the Wii U system, as it was originally designed to be released on the Wii and we had known about the game for years now. The game came out and is quite excellent but I would be interested in hearing more about the development of this game that they haven’t told us through Iwata Asks.
Fortunately since then, a steady release of games have been released, including the Kamiya-lead Wonderful 101, the beautiful The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD and casual-oriented titles like Wii Fit U, Wii Sports Club and Wii Party U. So one year in and it’s a very respectable library for a new console and that’s without even throwing in some eShop-only games like Trine 2: Director’s Cut, Nano Assault Neo, Toki Tori 2 and Mutant Mudds Deluxe to name a few. If only these retail games had been spread out over the year instead of being concentrated in the second half Nintendo may have been able to keep up the momentum from their moderately successful system launch.
An area where Nintendo needs to improve is their relationship with third parties. It’s an age-old battle that the average Nintendo consumer only buys Nintendo software and third parties fight over whatever scrap of a budget people have remaining afterwards. Meanwhile games like Need For Speed: Most Wanted and others get released and sell lower than expected. While the user base can’t entirely be blamed for not wanting to buy late ports with features or DLC missing from these games, Nintendo must do better to foster a healthy relationship with third parties to get them on board. So far they’ve done a great job with SEGA and as a result Sonic Lost Worlds is coming out exclusively for the system, but there needs to be more done on the western side of things where Nintendo is severely lacking. A gaping hole in their first party offerings, Nintendo never truly replaced Rare Studios to develop games that appealed to the average western gamer and it’s seemingly more important than ever to do so. With newer rival systems coming out, it’s a worrying point that after this year the Wii U third party offerings will be slim to none as third parties abandon ship. Nintendo really doesn’t like to throw money at developers like Microsoft does but Grand Theft Auto V might have done wonders for the system. Even if not just in sales but in the public perception.
On the flip side, the relationship with indie developers has drastically improved. Nintendo made a lot of great moves to lure developers to develop on the Wii U even going as far as giving Unity Pro for free to developers and allowing them to self publish games, loosening restrictions on what counts as an office space and changing the payment structure, which was quite horrendous on the Wii. Nintendo has even gone as far as loaning out development kits. At PAX East I spoke with Yacht Club Games, developer of Shovel Knight and was told that Nintendo reached out to them and gave them a loaner kit to get them started. Most of the cahnges can be attributed to Dan Adelman who has been Nintendo’s ambassador to indie developers and the effort seems to be working. Most every new indie game announced on Kickstarter has the Wii U as a target platform and the more games on the platform the better. After all, Mojang’s Minecraft was a small, unknown indie game at some point. Nintendo would benefit to get that game on the Wii U as well. Even if all they did was use the Gamepad for the crafting interface and map, that would improve the experience immensely.
One thing Nintendo should’ve absolutely nailed was the Wii U Virtual Console, which even now is pretty barren compared to the same point in time as the original Wii. A healthy, consistent stream of quality older games could have helped to generate interest and excitement for the system and the community. Don’t get me wrong, Earthbound coming out on Virtual Console was indeed awesome and amazing but it can’t prop up the entire service alone. Instead we a had a slow trickle of once a month, 30-cent games over a six month period before they officially launched the service. Even now, there are many noteworthy titles that are missing from the store and the Nintendo 64’s absence is not only noticeable but felt immensely and that’s not even mentioning the potential behind Gamecube Virtual Console. Nintendo has the most prestigious first party games from its history to pull from and they are absolutely failing to capitalize on that and they’re not in the same position as last generation where they could afford to slip up in some areas. Having these games available for purchase should be the bare minimum but they could take it much further. Why not give people who want to buy your games digitally incentive to do so? Imagine getting Super Mario 64 on Virtual Console for free if you pre-ordered Super Mario 3D World on the eShop.
Following up on their digital service, Nintendo really needs to step up its game with their account service for customers. A unified account system is so essential in this digital era that it is mind-blowing that we still don’t have it. There should be no reason that my purchases as a consumer are tied to my system and not my account. It was understandable for the Wii but since its release in 2006 accounts on other systems have come a long way and it’s simply inexcusable. Another point of soreness is the fact that because of this, Virtual Console games are not shareable by your Nintendo systems. If I wanted to buy Super Mario Bros. on the Wii when it launched, it cost me 5 dollars. When it came out on the 3DS, I have to cough up another 5 dollars if I wanted to play it on that service. Now that the Wii U has it available, if I want to play it without navigating to the Wii Channel and have mappable buttons and save states while playing it on the Gamepad, it’s going to cost 1.50 to upgrade. While the last point is somewhat understandable, it’s disappointing to not have Super Mario Bros. available on all of my Nintendo devices from one purchase. What if the game actually had a save file? Something like The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past or Final Fantasy II? No unified account, no cloud save storage, no way to do it. It seems like an oversight on what could be a really awesome feature with being able to play your Virtual Console game at home on your Wii U and then continuing it from the same point with your 3DS while on the road.
One positive point that came as a surprise with the last firmware update was the ability to play Wii games Off-TV and having the display on the Wii U Gamepad. Off-TV gameplay is really one of the cooler features that hasn’t been noted on enough and being able to play games like Super Mario Galaxy or Xenoblade Chronicles on the Gamepad is great. If only you could actually use the Gamepad as a controller instead of being forced to use a Wii remote, but hopefully they are working towards that in some capacity. As the only next-generation system that supports backwards compatibility with both software and hardware, Nintendo really deserves to be commended here.
Other things that Nintendo has done was to discontinue the Wii U Basic Edition, which was seemingly only confusing or dissuading consumers as it was consistently outsold by the Premium Edition. Dropping the retail price from 349.99 to 299.99 was also a great move, that 50 dollars going a long way to distance itself from the Playstation 4′s price tag of 399.99. Instead of continuing to try and force Nintendoland, they are offering multiple bundles this season, including The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker HD, New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Luigi U, Just Dance 2014, and Skylanders Swap Force. Hopefully these will prove to be a value to consumers in the upcoming and all-important holiday season.
While the first year was not what Nintendo or consumers would’ve liked, the system has improved in a lot of ways but there is still much that needs to be done. To sell systems there needs to be games and hopefully later this week with the release of Super Mario 3D World backed by a more lucrative price-point and a better marketing campaign consumers will start to pick up the system. This holiday season is critical for Nintendo. Looking to the future, there are some other excellent, high-profile titles to be excited about. Mario Kart 8 is probably the perfect title that positively hits upon both casual and core gamers, while Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze, Super Smash Bros. Wii U, Monolith Soft’s X and Platinum Games’ Bayonetta 2 are all exclusive titles that are worthy of any gamer’s attention. Nintendo was able to turn the tide for the 3DS and there is no reason to believe they couldn’t do the same with the Wii U.